FEDEX FIELD — A week ago, Josh Johnson was playing in a charity basketball tournament in his hometown of Oakland. Five-on-five, full court, twenty-minute halves and four games, if you want to know the truth. His squad won the title.
That’s a pretty good day. It had been a while since Johnson played that much ball. He couldn’t have realized what the next week had in store. Signed and cut by 11 NFL teams, now 32-years-old and with his hopes of another chance remote at best, circumstances changed dramatically for Johnson.
Redskins quarterback Colt McCoy broke his leg in last Monday’s game at Philadelphia. By Tuesday night Johnson was on a red-eye flight to Washington. By Wednesday, he was at practice. By Sunday he was on the field in the second half, replacing ineffective starter Mark Sanchez with Washington down 40-0 to the New York Giants.
“It’s really something I’ve been doing the last six years. I’ve been cut so much, been picked up one time the day of a game,” Johnson said. “The poise was there within myself because I just had to remember what I did before. Everybody probably would have expected me to go out and not do anything so I really had nothing to lose.”
At this point the 6-7 Redskins probably have nothing to lose, either. Their top two quarterbacks (Alex Smith, McCoy) are lost to broken legs, the offensive line is decimated by injuries again, the defense is fading. Johnson’s presence is the perfect metaphor as a once-promising season slips away during a four-game losing streak.
Sanchez, who signed himself just last month after Smith’s gruesome leg injury, struggled in the pocket against New York and doesn’t have the mobility to escape when protection breaks down.
At 5:31 of the third quarter, coach Jay Gruden turned to Johnson. He still has the athleticism to escape trouble and his legs can stress a defense. Gruden used to tease Johnson about his ugly spirals when they were together with the Cincinnati Bengals. Gruden was the offensive coordinator then, Johnson just a reserve.
It’s fair to point out that Johnson was playing during garbage time against a 4-8 team that had long ago gave up on its own season and was ahead 40-0 and ready to kill the clock and get out of Washington with a win. But he did complete 11 of 16 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. He was not sacked. He ran for 45 yards on seven carries, including a touchdown.
“The guy has been around the league for a while and has been with Jay before. To see him put that on tape was great,” Redskins right tackle Morgan Moses said. “He told us he’d communicate and make sure we’re on the same page - even if we’ve got to go on the same snap count. If we’ve got to dummy it down and make it simple for guys to get the ball out, that’s what it takes.”
That Johnson produced as much as he did was shocking given that he hardly knew anyone’s name other than tight end Vernon Davis, who he played with in San Francisco, running back Adrian Peterson, tight end Jordan Reed and wide receiver Jamison Crowder. Johnson ran scout team reps in practice as the Redskins scrambled to get Sanchez ready to start. He did not get his own package of plays.
Teammates didn’t know much about Johnson, either. He spent all week holed up in meetings trying to learn the playbook as fast as he could. It’s an impossible task. He even took to playing Madden football to learn his own teammates’ names. He laughed that it came to that, but wasn’t surprised. You do what you have to when given an unexpected chance.
“Felt fun. It felt fun. I was just really embracing the opportunity,” Johnson said. “When you don’t get to play this game and you love this game then you really appreciate every opportunity that you get. And so I just wanted to enjoy it. And that’s how I’m taking it every day. Come to work. Practice. Weight room. Whatever. Just enjoy it. I’m 32. I’m 32. Just enjoy it."
And Johnson ultimately gave Gruden what he needed in that moment. The final score was still a brutal 40-16 after a pair of two-point conversions. But Johnson will start next Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars - though it is probably too late for the Redskins who look less and less competitive every week.
"The bright spot we had to today was Josh Johnson,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “The rest of it, it is what it is."
For some players, that’s enough to start thinking about the offseason. For Johnson, cut by the Giants at the end of training camp in 2017, the Houston Texans last December, the Oakland Raiders, his hometown team, in May, every minute in the NFL is a gift. He could be back in Oakland, working with cousin Marshawn Lynch and their Family1st Foundation, which helps provide, mentoring, skills, sports and business opportunities and training to kids in inner-city Oakland and beyond.
Johnson was at a local hospital visiting one of his foundation’s kids, who had a broken leg, when he got the call from the Redskins. He was ready for a chance no one saw coming except himself. Maybe that lesson will stick with the kids back home, too.
“We’re just trying to do what we do for our community and then spread it to other communities,” Johnson said. “We grew up like a lot of these inner-city kids. If we can be an example of how to keep pushing, stay motivated within yourself, be able to take the good with the bad - that’s how life is. It’s overcoming.”
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